Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have suggested a way to combine gasification with fuel-cell technology in a bid to boost efficiency of coal-fired power plants.


The project involves combining coal gasification, which is a way of extracting burnable gaseous fuel from pulverized coal, with fuel cell, which produces electricity from a gaseous fuel, to create a hybrid system.

Using coal as a fuel source, the hybrid system will produce electricity and has potential to nearly double the efficiency of conventional coal-fired power plants, the researchers said.

The researchers expect the project to reduce 50% in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for a given amount of power produced.

MIT doctoral student Katherine Ong said that the hybrid system allows the two components to exchange heat with minimal energy losses.

The fuel cell will generate heat required to sustain the gasification part of the process while eliminating the need for a separate heating system, thus reducing emissions significantly.

Ong said that the proposed hybrid system is expected to have efficiency of 55% to 60% when compared with existing plants, which can convert about 30% of the coal burned into energy.

The researchers are now working to build a small, pilot-scale plant to assess the performance of the hybrid system in real-world conditions.

Ong added: "If we’re going to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions in the near term, the only way to realistically do that is to increase the efficiency of our fossil fuel plants."

Since the project involves no new technology, a full-scale operational system is expected to be completed within a few years.

Ong said: "It’s just a matter of coupling these existing technologies together well."

Image: Illustration of MIT researchers’ hybrid system. Photo: courtesy of Jeffrey Hanna/ Massachusetts Institute of Technology.